Yanks' pitching in short supply
More questions than answers surround Bombers' staff
NEW YORK -- Some people believe that the eternal question is: "What is the true meaning of life?" That's fine, but for baseball people, the eternal question is: "Do they have enough pitching?"
That second question brings us to the 2008 New York Yankees, who, as usual, have enough of everything else. Pitching has been an issue with the Yankees of recent seasons, and this year is not significantly different. But this year, the pitching question may be even more crucial because injuries have exacerbated an existing lack of depth.
Nobody is going to lose a pitcher of the caliber of Chien-Ming Wang and not suffer from the loss. Wang won 38 games over the past two years, won them for the Yankees, and he probably still did not get enough recognition. He is out until September with a serious injury to his right foot. The verdict on the Yankees' pitching was distinctly mixed this weekend, as befitting a four-game Subway Series split with the Mets.
Dan Giese on Friday? Probably not. Sidney Ponson on Friday night? An emphatic yes, but you have to hold your breath with this fellow. Andy Pettitte on Saturday? Of course. Darrell Rasner on Sunday? He looked like an answer in his first three starts with the Yankees, but since then, some evidence has been piling up on the other side of the argument. He has won only once in his past seven starts.
On Sunday, in a 3-1 loss to the Mets, Rasner did not pitch badly, giving up two runs over five innings. But he had the look of a pitcher who could get to two strikes capably enough, but he could not put hitters away. Two hits in a run-scoring second inning for the Mets occurred that way, and so did a mammoth solo home run by Carlos Delgado in the third. Still, this was a better performance from Rasner than recent ones, so there was something positive to be taken from that.
"Nice comeback game for him," Alex Rodriguez said. "I have a lot of confidence in Rasner."
The difference between Rasner and Mets starter Oliver Perez was notable. Perez's performances this season have been erratic to say the least, but he has the stuff to completely shut someone down when he is focused, as he obviously was on Sunday. His 5-1 record against the Yankees is evidence of that. Rasner is not quite that kind of pitcher.
Elsewhere in the rotation, Mike Mussina has revived his career, and Joba Chamberlain's much-heralded transition from the bullpen is ticking along successfully. With one-half of the season gone, the Yankees are only 60 percent settled in their rotation.
If Ponson can take over a spot for Giese, that would be an obvious plus. Ponson can still pitch -- he was 4-1 with Texas before the Rangers let him go. But there is the issue. Ponson's career has been an off-field incident waiting to happen. That was what triggered his departure from Texas, even though the Rangers were desperate for pitching. The Yankees must hope that not only can Ponson throw strikes, but that he has finally matured.
What other internal help could arrive? Phil Hughes is likely out until the second half of August, and his pre-injury performance wasn't particularly encouraging. Ian Kennedy, another early-season disappointment, is off the disabled list and pitching in the Minors. But he isn't going to be automatically handed another opportunity.
"Our guys are throwing the ball well; I think you have to earn your spot back," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said of Kennedy's possible return. "You have to pitch well. This is earning your way back."
The Yankees don't have enough bullpen depth, although that shortcoming is shared with almost every other club in the game. The search goes on, along with the Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre shuttle. Rookie David Robertson was the latest reliever summoned, giving up one run in two innings of work on Sunday.
Closer Mariano Rivera, already one of the greatest at his trade in the game's history, has somehow produced even better results this season. He is 22-for-22 in save opportunities, and he has not been charged with one run in any of those appearances. If the Yankees can figure out the first eight innings, the ninth is apparently more of a sure thing.
The Yankees lost the overall Subway Series this season, 4-2, but there are six games more pertinent to their future in the American League East over the next 10 days -- four against the Red Sox and two against the Rays. And therein lies part of the problem. Last year, Boston had better pitching than New York. This year, statistically, so does Tampa Bay.
Those series will come after a three-game set with the Rangers, who have the AL's worst team ERA, but Texas will test a pitching staff, because it leads the league in runs scored.
The Yankees can take some solace from an overall improvement in their level of play -- 14-15 in April, 14-12 in May and 16-11 in June.
"We've obviously played better the last month than we played the first two months, and I'm happy about that," Girardi said. "Health is part of that. We have our lineup back."
Hideki Matsui aside, yes, these are the Yankees as expected among the position players. But the starting pitching in the fourth and fifth spots of the rotation still remains an unsettled state.
Maybe Ponson strings something good together -- both on and off the field. Maybe Rasner's work is consistent enough to at least keep the Yankees in games that he starts. Maybe Kennedy works his way back and becomes the pitcher they hoped he would be.
When your aspirations include, at a minimum, your 14th straight postseason appearance, those are truly a lot of maybes. With their season past its mathematical midpoint, and the eternal question "Do they have enough pitching?" is asked of the Yankees, the answer is still: Maybe, could be, perhaps.
Michael Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.